Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #148

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #148

“Cry, Mutant”

Eleven months before this issue hit the stands, readers were treated to the sublime perfection of Uncanny X-Men #137, featuring spacious, meticulously choreographed artwork by John Byrne that was in turn given a sheen of crisp, clear perfection by Terry Austin’s inks. Claremont’s dialogue was lean and his command of language, perfect, even the individual words had an added elegance thanks to the machine-like precision of Tom Orzechowski’s lettering.

What a difference a year can make. Dave Cockrum is an enthusiastic and imaginative artist, but he goes for immediate impact. Eschewing Byrne’s sense of subtlety, Cockrum’s typical strategy is to pack every panel with as much action and dynamism as he can. Meanwhile, Joe Rubinstein’s inking line is much softer than Austin’s. The result of Cockrum’s exuberantly jam-packed layouts combining with Rubinstein’s less articulate inking is some messy-looking pages. Meanwhile, the less written about letter Janice Chiang’s penmanship (indeed, the less written WITH Janice Chiang’s penmanship), the better.

In short, this is a sloppy-looking comic. Not at first, granted. The opening splash images (Page 1’s image of a skimpily-attired Scott and Lee and Pages 2 and 3’s spread of an Atlantean City – rendered in shades of green by the still-superb colorist Glynis Oliver) are dynamic and eye-catching. Ditto, the full-page reveal of Magneto at the end (another classic in a long-line of Magneto splashes). It is the meat of the issue that fails to engage, as Claremont delivers one half-hearted sequence after another, his collaborators doing little to cover for the writer’s apparent lack of inspiration. The opening sequence with Scott and Lee is schizophrenic, its emotional beats confused. Scott laments his inability to relate to normal people “outside the unique high-pressure environment of the X-Men.” That would be both a logical and poignant lament if Lee didn’t act like a character out of a bad daytime soap opera.

Later, Angel quits the team (9 issues after having joined) because he thinks Wolverine is too dangerous, yet there is never a confrontation between Warren and Logan. Indeed, the only example Angel can come up with to back himself up is Wolverine’s violent dismemberment of ... a robot. Later, Banshee meets Theresa Rourke -- the daughter he never knew he had -- in a scene that is virtually incomprehensible if you haven’t read the Claremont-penned Spider-Woman issues wherein Theresa debuted.

Moira gets a halfway decent scene, in which she admits to Storm that she already resents Theresa, because Moira herself can’t ever give Sean a child; she doesn’t want to risk spawning another Proteus. That’s a canny use of continuity, and from the dialogue Claremont seems to have it in mind to make this a new arc for Moira and Banshee – but he never does. Indeed, after the huge introduction of Theresa in the Spider-Woman story, Claremont seems to immediately tire of her. He won’t use her in any significant way until Uncanny X-Men #278 – one issue before his last – and that instance was probably editorially mandated. It certainly raises the question as to just what the point is of the character.

(It is documented that Banshee’s creator, Roy Thomas, originally wanted Banshee to be female – the mythical “banshee” is a female creature – but the idea was quashed by Stan Lee. Claremont may have been attempting to fulfill Roy Thomas’ original vision, but that alone seems like a weak motivation to create a brand-new character.)

A noteworthy step in Wolverine’s development occurs in this issue when Wolverine employs an “old ninja trick” that he “learned in Japan” during a duel with Nightcrawler. Logan’s affinity for Japan was first introduced during Byrne and Claremont’s Moses Magnum arc (issues 118-119), and that seed will blossom pretty soon into a major component of Wolverine’s character. Claremont and Frank Miller’s “Shogun”-inspired Wolverine miniseries is still about a year away, but Wolverine’s ability to pull “ninja tricks” is a clue of what’s to come.

Claremont’s affection for female characters makes its presence known in the main sequence for the issue. At this point in the series, the X-Men only have two female members, but Claremont still finds a way to write a “ladies night out” story, bolstering the estrogen count through the use of Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew (another character Claremont happened to be writing at the same time), supporting cast member Stevie Hunter, and Dazzler (who was first introduced in Uncanny #130 and whose solo series had debuted only about six months ago). A fun idea, but more awkward dialogue hampers the execution (Kitty Pryde is chastised by Ororo and Stevie for her “rudeness” after the horrendous faux pas of asking Jessica three questions about her job. Huh?)

Granted, the obligatory action sequence is competently carried out, there is obvious potential in the new mutant character Caliban, and to Claremont’s credit he writes Dazzler far more interestingly than Tom DeFalco did in the contemporaneous issues of her own comic. Furthermore, “Cry, Mutant” has some canonical significance in that it’s the story wherein Kitty decides to stop being afraid of Nightcrawler. Yet for all its amiable competence, this issue falls depressingly below the high standards that Uncanny X-Men was hitting consistently less than a year ago.

9 comments:

scott91777 said...

Wow, this is the first time I've heard such tremendous hatred for a letterer! :)

We have covers now! Nifty!

Geoff: You should totally put up any interesting adverts you come across as well. How was Orca? :)

279 was Claremont's last issue? Who did 280? (the 'gold team' was introduced in 281)... wait, I came across this issue recently in a used been... was it Peter David? Or am I thinking of the last X-factor issue before the Havok led version of the team took over?

I remember once wondering why a lot of these significant X-characters (Mystyique, Rogue, Sabertooth) made their first appearances in other non-x comics... but of course, Claremont was writing them.

By the way, who are they fighting? The Shadow?

Jason said...

Letterers MATTER, dammit! :) (Seriously, Janice Chiang is *terrible.* There's actually a period coming up where Orzechowski and Chiang switch off, issue to issue. It's maddening. I worship at the feet of Orz, while Chiang's letters fill me with rage.)

Claremont wrote the first eleven pages of issue 279, and Fabian Nicieza wrote the last eleven pages, then went on to write #280 as well. (Yeah, re: Peter David, you are thinking of X-Factor 70, which is the epilogue to the story told in Uncanny #280 and also the lead-in to the Havok/Polaris incarnation of X-Factor in #71).

Ah, 1991 ... is there anything about you I CAN forget???

That's Caliban on the cover, not the Shadow. Oddly enough, though, Caliban's first line of dialogue in this issue is "My city is my mother ... my city is my lover ..."

Just kiddin'.

I should have acknowledged the thing of adding the covers. Lovely touch, Doktor Klock!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but you only started after we passed the period of the best covers!

(I should talk... I can't even post a simple graphic on my home blog.)

Yeah, this was a lame issue. The whole "Magneto on R'lyeh" business was pretty dopey too. And Caliban -- it's the early, pop-eyed Gollum version here, not the burly fellow Walt Simonson drew -- is sorta blurry. IMS Claremont just came up with him because he liked the whole "Ariel and Caliban" thing. That didn't work out so well.

But, okay. Given that we're in the middle of a long stretch of lame issues, maybe we should ask what we can learn from these. Part of this is the sort of stuff you've been highlighting, like the details on Nightcrawler's teleportation last issue, or the end of Kitty's brief (9 issues?) period of being nervous around him. But another part might be to examine how Claremont is developing (or not) as a writer.

F'rinstance. A couple of issues back I noted that Storm went through a lot of silly and pointless physical transformations in these issues (statue, mind-swap, vampire). You replied that you didn't think they were pointless, because they were precursors to the "Powerless Storm" we'd be seeing in another 30 issues or so.

Well, perhaps both are true. Upon consideration, I think the transformations were... trials. Experiments, dry runs. Maybe not conscious ones. More like Claremont canoodling until something clicked.

In this particular case, what Claremont had a hold of was that with Jean gone, Ororo was now a much more important character: she was now the only female, and also the most powerful member of the team. So, she was suddenly more interesting, and there was more that could be done with her.

Claremont's first reaction was to just rerun what he did with Phoenix. That was deeply stupid -- and to his credit, he seems to have realized it. The whole "female power/female sexuality/danger" thing that's at the center of the Dark Phoenix story won't go away, but his next round of grappling with it will be a lot more subtle and thoughtful.

In retrospect, a lot of these "Second Cockrum" stories look like that: Claremont off-balance, but also -- as he recovers -- trying out new characters, new tropes, new storylines and themes and techniques. Some of these suck, and some of them won't have legs, but even when they don't work they may be interesting as first drafts.

In this issue, for instance, you mention Claremont bringing in Jessica Drew and Dazzler. Well, Claremont had always liked to cross-reference his titles and move characters back and forth as guests.

He started this very early, with Iron Fist and Marvel Team-Up, and he had some early hits, especially in his Byrne run on Team-Up. But in this issue, he's trying to take it up another level, swapping a minor character and a plotline away from one title to another (after, you may recall, using Black Tom and the Juggernaut as villains in Spider-Woman) while at the same time taking the lead character from another title altogether.

And it doesn't work very well. But later, he'll be writing three titles and regular mini-series, all interconnecting, while at the same time flipping characters and plotlines back and forth with Bill Mantlo and Jim Shooter's titles. And sometimes -- not always -- making it work. So, we could maybe view this issue as a first experiment in "how to handle a multiple, multi-creator crossover". It may not work so well here, but clearly he learned how to do it better later.

So, a couple of years of sketchbooking and journeyman work, as Claremont figures out how to raise his game: maybe that's the goal worth panning for in these otherwise muddy waters.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Caliban's powers in this story, if I remember correctly, was that he gained super-strength from the negative emotions of others. Somehow over the years this power morphed into the "mutant detection" powers he would use until turned into Apocalypse's "Hound", the less of which is said, the better. Talk about a plotline that never went anywhere. Caliban is an odd character. Not only have his powers shifted over the years, he has had at least three distinct characterizations: Weak-willed and submissive yet noble, vicious and consumed with a desire for vengeance, then childlike and nearly brain-dead. Can the real Caliban please stand up?

Jessica Drew would pop up later in Uncanny X-Men, on one of their San Francisco adventures when they were ambushed by Freedom Force. She didn't have her powers then. Claremont clearly liked her. He also wrote Ms. Marvel in Marvel Team-Up and Avengers Annual 10, then brings her into the X-fold through their (upcoming in this very blog!) first Brood storyline.

Shlomo said...

These are actually the issues that I'm least familiar with. I started reading x-men-classics around 180 after having read dark phoenix, while I was reading the then-current Uncanny circa 300. While reading the run around 180, I remember thinking that I was put off by only getting part of the story. I also wondered why the narratives seemed so much more disorganized in comparison to dark phoenix.

The best part of that era was the caliban/morlock interactions, and the most confusing parts were the new phoenix/selene parts. Selene seemed to come out of nowhere to become this important, powerful figure, yet she was a magical-character and didnt even seem to be a mutant. It seemed like most of the stories were flying in and out of the new mutants or the secret war.

Was there anything important to the overall continuity in the 30 issues between 145 and 175 besides the introduction of the morlocks?

Jason said...

Shlomo,

The key "continuity" moments in the run from 145 to 175 include:

The introduction of the Brood.
Scott learns Corsair is his father.
Magneto revealed to be a survivor of the Holocaust.
Introduction of Lockheed.
Wolverine almost marries Mariko.
Introduction of Madelyne Pryor.
Rogue first appears in an X-Men issue, then later joins the team.

(those are the main ones that I recall ...)

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wwk5d said...

"Caliban's powers in this story, if I remember correctly, was that he gained super-strength from the negative emotions of others. Somehow over the years this power morphed into the "mutant detection" powers he would use"

No, he had both. He knew where to find Storm, Kitty, et al because he could sense their presence. Reread the issue.

Again, good simple fun. Storm and Stevie scolded Kitty not for asking questions, but asking...silly questions.

My favorite scene is where Kitty ditches the others by phasing under the table to confront Caliben, and after walking on air in the elevator shaft, thinks how proud Ororo would be of her. Switch to...Ororo wanting to shake Kitty by the neck for her recklessness :D

Anonymous said...

No idea if anyone will read this but...

This was the first issue of X-Men I ever bought (well, my parents bought it for me) and I absolutely loved it. I was in hospital at the time for a pretty serious operation and spent about 6 weeks off school. My parents compensated by often buying me Marvel/DC comics (I was around 8/9 years old at the time) and I must have read almost every comic put out during that month. X-Men (and New Teen Titans #9) stood out from this crowd, despite being unbelievably camp nonsense in retrospect. Perhaps that was part of the appeal.

I loved the elevator scene, Dazzler's mesmerising of the crowd, Kitty's exuberance, Storm's mumsy exoticness, and also Kurt and Wolvie's outdoor training scene. I had no idea what was going on with Banshee and Theresa, or indeed half of the other references throughout the issue, but it gave me the sense that these characters had a complex history. This led me to wanting to know more.

I loved this Cockrum run, and still remember my disgust when Paul Smith took over. This guy can't draw I thought (I was just a child). At this point I hadn't even clocked that there was a writer.

Richard S